William Cunningham on Apostolic Authority and the Regulative Principle

William Cunnigham: Historical Theology 1:68-69

First, That nothing ought to be admitted into the ordinary government and worship of the Christian church which has not the sanction or warrant of scriptural authority, or apostolic practice at least, if not precept;but with this exception or limitation, as stated in the first chapter of our Confession of Faith, ‘that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the word, which are always to be observed.’

Secondly, That the scriptural proof of any arrangement or practice having existed in the apostolic churches ordinarily and prima facie imposes an obligation upon all churches to adopt it, — an obligation that is imperative and unlimited in regard to all those things which obviously enter into the substance of the government and worship of the church, and the mode in which they are administered.

Thirdly, That the onus probandi lies upon those who propose to omit anything which has the sanction of apostolic practice, and that they must produce a satisfactory reason for doing so, derived either from some general principle or specific statement of Scripture bearing upon the point, or from the nature of the case, as making it manifest that the particular point of practice under consideration was local and temporary.

There are two great practical questions involved in the right adjustment of this general topic of the binding force of apostolical practice, or of the permanent obligation of what we know from Scripture to have been actually done in the primitive churches under apostolic superintendence, viz., — first, whether it be lawful for Christian churches now to omit any arrangement or observance which the apostles introduced into, or sanctioned in, the churches; and, secondly, whether it be lawful to introduce into the church any arrangement or observance which they did not sanction or require. To maintain the affirmative on either of these questions, as a general rule, seems to amount to something like a negation of the place or standing which is plainly ascribed to the apostles in the New Testament, as supernaturally authorized and guided by Christ for the work of organizing and establishing His church in the world. If this function were really devolved by Christ upon the apostles, and if they were supernaturally qualified by him for the execution of it, then there is no reason whatever to reject, but, on the contrary, every reason to admit, the conclusion, that what they did in this matter, either in introducing or in omitting, when ascertained from Scripture, forms a rule or standard which the church in all ages is imperatively bound to follow. To deny this is virtually to reduce the apostles, with reference to what was evidently one of the main parts of their special function, to the level of ordinary uninspired men, and to ascribe to the office-bearers of the church in subsequent times an equal right and an equal fitness to determine the arrangements of Christ’s kingdom with that which the apostles possessed. The rejection of apostolic practice as a binding rule for the church in all ages is of course glossed over by its defenders under plausible pretences; but it really amounts, in substance and in effect, to a preference of their own wisdom to that of the apostles, i.e.¸ of the wisdom of man to that of God.